“Judy and Punch,” a new film starring Mia Wasikowska and now on VOD, is set in mid-17th century. There’s lace collars and cuffs, petticoats, breeches and jerkins on display but make no mistake, this is a timely tale of ideology over logic, of justice, revenge and puppetry.
The action begins in Seaside, an English town the movie tells us is nowhere near the sea. It’s the first clue that not everything is right in this small settlement. It’s a place where women are stoned to death on the suspicion of witchcraft (one woman is killed because she stared “at the moon for a suspiciously long time.”) and law and order is administered by angry mobs. It’s here that Judy (Wasikowska) and Punch (Damon Herriman) eke out a living as puppeteers, making money by passing around a hat. She is clearly the more gifted artist but there is little room left for her in the spotlight as his ego takes up so much space. He is an ambitious but arrogant artist who craves attention almost as much as he thirsts for booze.
When his drinking leads to an unspeakable turn of events, Punch’s venal nature comes to the fore, and in a case of his Punch and Judy style art imitating real life, he puts his own self interest ahead of everyone, particularly his gentle-natured wife who must seek vengeance for his deeds.
“Judy and Punch” finally gives Punch his comeuppance after centuries of bad behavior. That’s not a spoiler, just the premise of the movie. The why and how of his punishment provide the subtext that makes the movie timely. A study in toxic masculinity, of abuse and misogyny, the movie mixes very dark satire, brutality and puppets to tell a story of addiction and domestic abuse.
Wasikowska grounds the story, playing Judy as a gentle soul pushed to extremes by tragic circumstances. Herriman—who played Charles Manson in both “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “Mindhunter”—is a flamboyant Punch, a calculating drunk incapable of loving anyone as much as he loves himself. They are the movie’s yin and yang, and the conflict between them leads to a dark conclusion, equal parts magic realism and real life.
“Judy and Punch” is an impressive debut from actor-turned-director Mirrah Foulkes. Although uneven it cleverly balances everything from humour and tragedy to fairy tales and feminism, in a sly story of love and vengeance.